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Family - A Seattle Advertising Agency

Who Can Guess Why Back to School Commercials are a Joke?

Comedy Writing

Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise

Wrapped in a bathrobe, I was standing in our kitchen with my arms crossed. And I was pissed. Overnight, someone idiot had tried to make Sloppy Joes, and it was everywhere: all over the counter, raw burger on the ceiling, the floor… I mean everywhere. My roommates and I had had a lot to drink the night before – and by a lot, I mean kegs of Killian’s Red. I was a broadcast major at Western Washington University. And let’s just say we weren’t model students.

I vaguely remembered playing baseball with our telephone and a bat. Yep. Parts of the phone were everywhere. I wandered into the living room, where the couch had been sawed in half with a chain saw. I had no idea how that happened. One of my roommates shuffled into the room, simply saying, “Holeeeeey…”

Of course, I demanded to know which one of them decorated the kitchen with Sloppy Joes. He just snickered: “Don’t you remember? It was you.”


College life is filled with experiences you’ll never forget, and some you’ll never remember. School days, in general, are filled with rich opportunities for humor. Yet, every Back to School shopping season, most of the advertising falls short. Very short.

So What’s the Big Deal?

You’d think there would be better ads. According to MediaMath, it’s the second-biggest shopping season, behind Christmas, generating almost $76B last year. And eMarketer says most of the spending goes for college purchases like electronics and dorm supplies, and then apparel after school starts – but there’s plenty of spending on K-through-12 students.

When is Safe Too Safe?

But every year we see safe, cute and/or downright schmaltzy advertising, as if brands are marketing to some 1950s housewife. Or worse yet, tedious price-and-item spots. I’m begging you, marketers: Put a little edge on that thing. The comedic opportunities for Back to School are limitless.

  • Frat humor – like my college experience

  • Working part-time to pay for college

  • Parents longing to escape their children

  • Children longing to escape their parents

  • Helicopter parents who can’t let go of their son or daughter on the first day of school

  • Helicopter parents who can’t let go of their son or daughter on the first day of college

  • Being rejected by school cliques

  • Being lost in a new school

  • Seeing old friends who have changed over the summer

  • Making new friends, or not

  • Exchange student being a fish out of water

  • College students acting like kindergarteners

  • Kindergarteners acting like college students

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point

And next year there will be an even bigger (or should I say longer) opportunity. Because, just like Christmas, the start of Back to School season starts earlier and earlier every year. Last year, Lands’ End was lambasted in social media for sending out catalogs in mid-June. This year Office Depot pushed up the start date before the Fourth of July. Next year, I predict someone takes a run at Memorial Day. With a shopping season that long, I hope we get funnier advertising.

Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike


There are many different ways to make a character funnier. Read all about it.

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